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Ever since it occupied Palestinian territory in June 1967, Israel has focused much of its efforts, laws and practices on attempting to unify and control Jerusalem, while simultaneously trying to minimize any role for its Palestinian population. The White House’s announcement on 6 December 2017 that it would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, breaking with years of diplomatic precedent, will almost certainly reignite tensions as well as concerns regarding the discrimination between West Jerusalem (Israeli) and East Jerusalem (Palestinian).
Israeli legal actions began on the 27 June 1967, when Israel unilaterally expanded the borders of East Jerusalem and annexed occupied East Jerusalem to Israel.
Yet although the Trump administration has recognized an ‘undefined’ Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it has yet to rescind its previous decisions not to recognize Israel’s 1967 annexation. No country in the world has ever recognized the annexation or any of the other laws that attempted to make the occupied city part of the State of Israel.
Israel passed civilian laws to Jerusalem and those Palestinians who were included in a census conducted in the city just after its occupation. East Jerusalemites were thus given permanent residency in Israel, codified by a blue ID card and yellow licence plates similar to those in Israel. Palestinians in Jerusalem were also eligible to join the national insurance agency and qualify for lifelong social benefits, from child and senior citizen benefits to health care, unemployment and even compensation for their families for burial costs.
Naturally, to qualify for these social benefits, Palestinians are obliged to pay a variety of personal and property taxes. This is despite the fact that Arab neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem do not benefit to anywhere near the same degree as Jewish neighbourhoods either in West Jerusalem or East Jerusalem.
In August 1980, Israel passed the Jerusalem the Capital of Israel basic law, which declared all of Jerusalem to be the ‘united and eternal capital of Israel’. This prompted the last two countries with embassies in Jerusalem – Guatemala and the Dominican Republic – to move to Tel Aviv a month later. No foreign embassy has been located in Jerusalem since.
In occupied East Jerusalem, Israel launched a massive settlement enterprise that attempted to consolidate this unilateral unification and to make the possibility of East Jerusalem being part of a future Palestinian state next to impossible. B’tselem, Israel’s leading human rights organization, estimates that 280,000 Jews live in illegal settlements built in East Jerusalem since 1967.
At the same time, Israel refused to approve any local zoning plans for Arabs in East Jerusalem, ensuring a near de facto housing freeze for Palestinians. Approved zoning plans are necessary to build in a particular neighbourhood. Yet the growth of Palestinian families forced many to build extra rooms, extra floors and in some cases new homes on their land to accommodate newlyweds.
Israel responded to this construction with a campaign of demolitions that has intensified in recent years. In 2016, Israel destroyed a record 123 houses in East Jerusalem. A further 89 homes were destroyed in the first ten months of 2017.
Another administrative manoeuvre was to reduce the number of Palestinian Arabs in the city. Israeli officials secretly agreed on a plan to reduce the Palestinians to no more than 28 per cent of the population. The late Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi described the manoeuvre as a “slow transfer”. Zeevi was assassinated by Palestinians in 2001, outside his room in an Israeli hotel built in occupied East Jerusalem. Israel has withdrawn the permanent residency status of 230,000 Palestinians since 1967.
Once the hub of the Palestinian economy, East Jerusalem was choked by the construction of the Israeli security wall that made the movement between East Jerusalem and other Palestinian cities in the West Bank extremely difficult. Although Palestinians in Jerusalem can travel to the rest of the occupied territories, Palestinians in the rest of the West Bank are not allowed to travel freely to Jerusalem. A permit is needed to enter the city and even then, passing the checkpoints is both time-consuming and humiliating. No Palestinians from the rest of the occupied territories are allowed to use their car to enter Jerusalem.
One of the few remaining areas to the east of the city that has not been settled is called E1. It lies between the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim and East Jerusalem. Palestinians and the international community have identified this area as vital for ensuring a future Palestinian state is contiguous. Israeli attempts to settle the area have so far been forcibly and successfully rejected by the United States and other members of the international community, who feared it would spell the end of a two-state solution.
However, Israel has refused to back down. Speaking at a political event in Maale Adumim, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu said that soon thousands of Israelis would be moving into new homes. Map experts said that the only location that could fit thousands of settlers is the E1 area.
Israel has also taken a number of steps to prepare conditions for this new settlement, including demolishing a kindergarten built with funding from the European Union for the children of the Bedouin populations that live in the area, many since 1948. In early November 2017, demolition orders were left at the makeshift homes of the residents of Jabel al-Baba and other Bedouin encampments, affecting the homes of some 300 Palestinians.
Simultaneously with this drive to settle E1, Israeli lawmakers have drafted a new law that would jerrymander the borders of the Jerusalem municipality and Israel’s unilateral annexation of Jerusalem. In order to exclude areas of Jerusalem such as the Shufat refugee camp and the town of Kufr Aqab, both of which lie beyond the Israeli security wall, Israel wants to introduce a Greater Jerusalem plan. The plan would add three major West Bank settlement blocks to the city of Jerusalem while removing the important Palestinian areas of Shufat and Kufr Aqab. The plan is still on the drawing board and has not yet been approved.
An Israeli attempt in 2016 to erect metal detectors at the entrance of the contested al-Aqsa Mosque produced angry reactions and an ongoing protest that eventually forced Israel to reconsider.
Today, Palestinians in Jerusalem number about 300,000. They have learned from years of war and discrimination the simple lesson that anyone who leaves his home or land will find it hard, if not impossible, to reclaim. The Palestinian strategy at present is therefore focused on sumud or steadfastness. The idea is that until the balance of power changes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the best thing that Palestinians can do is to stay put.